The This is Lincoln Center podcast offers listeners intimate, enlightening moments with some of the great artistic talents of our time. Hosted by Live From Lincoln Center producer Kristy Geslain, This is Lincoln Center features the musicians, dancers, actors, creators, and thinkers who make the magic happen on Lincoln Center's famous stages.
Kristy Geslain: It may come as a surprise that a young musician growing up with the name Tito Puente Jr. would gravitate toward death metal. And yet that's exactly how the son of the legendary timbale player Ernesto Antonio "Tito" Puente first started out in the music business. But after traveling the world alongside his dad, he eventually felt the call of the clave and became a timbale player in his own right.
Today, Tito Puente Jr., carries on his father's musical legacy, including as part of the popular and ongoing ¡VAYA! 63 series at Lincoln Center's David Rubenstein Atrium, where he performed a free show recently. Before the show, I spoke to the bandleader and percussionist about his father's career, his own musical path, and keeping the spirit of Puente alive.
This is Lincoln Center with Tito Puente Jr.
KG: So we're here with Tito Puente Jr. fresh off the plane. Thank you for coming right over.
TPJ: Pleasure to be here. I'm part of the great and beautiful Lincoln Center series called ¡VAYA! 63 at the David Rubenstein Atrium and I'm very, very excited to be a part of this along with my comrades Eddie Montalvo, of course, Eddie Palmieri, and Jose Fajardo Jr. It's just a great opportunity to shed and shine Latin music here in the center of New York City, the heart of it, right at Lincoln Center. So very exciting and looking forward to having my family, my friends, all my buddies from uptown who say, "Oh, there's a free concert?" They're coming! (laughs) They hear free, they come.
KG: So you grew up here in New York City. Tell us about your childhood. We're right kind of where you grew up.
TPJ: This is it. This is it. I grew up right down the street, actually about a block away from here. My sister still to this day lives in the area, too. And my brother Ronny Puente happens to go to Juilliard!
KG: Oh wow!
TPJ: Yeah, he goes to the Juilliard school of music.
TPJ: And he is in his seventies, ladies and gentlemen. (laughs) That's right.
KG: Wow, so it is a real family affair here at Lincoln Center.
TPJ: Never too young or old to learn about the great music. He's learning about Gregorian monks and stuff like that, and great music and wild.
Every time I come near this building or Lincoln Center for the Arts, I feel at home. I went to a little school over here called Lincoln Square Academy, it's not there anymore. It was back in the 1970s. But yeah, this is my hood, I guess you would call it that. But Lincoln Center's always been a staple for my father's music, my late father Tito Puente. He loved performing here.
KG: Awesome. So for those listeners who don't know much about your dad and his legacy, tell us a little bit about your father.
TPJ: The great El Rey del Timbal, Tito Puente, he was a Latin icon, legend, composer/arranger/producer, dear old dad to me. He was an ambassador of Latin music worldwide. He's done over 186 albums to his credit. He had over a 50-year career, seven-time Grammy Award winner, fourteen nominations, star in the Walk of Fame... Okay, I can keep going on. (laughs)
He was in many, many movies. One in particular that was very popular was called Mambo Kings. He played with Armand Asante and Antonio Banderas and he worked a lot with some very popular singers, with the likes of Ruben Blades, of course Carlos Santana, redid one of his songs called "Oye Como Va," and the great queen of Latin music, Ms. Celia Cruz, may God rest her soul. He worked with so many different artists. I mean, I can go on and on as far as the ones who are still with us today: Gloria Estefan, Santana, and Ricky Martin, and Marc Anthony, and La India. Every Latin artist has crossed paths with my late father.
He was born and raised in Spanish Harlem, from Puerto Rican parents. Poor Puerto Rican boy, poor Puerto Rican roots, and grew up in Central Park playing the timbales at the age of six years old. From 1927 all the way to his passing he was a professional player of Latin music worldwide. He was an impeccable composer and arranger, if you listen to any of his music. I guess we could just say "Google him!" (laughs) Can we just say that? Can we just say Google Tito Puente?
KG: Google and Spotify.
TPJ: Google and Spotify. Yeah. Listen and learn. And you will learn a lot. I still, to this day, I'm still learning more about my father. He passed away May 31, 2000. There's a void missing in Latin music and it was Tito Puente and it still is. Hopefully, I can keep his tradition going by performing his music and keeping his name alive.
KG: Great. So tell me about Tito Puente, the dad. What was it like growing up here in New York with your dad, I'm assuming, working a ton, touring, recording, and having that whole life but then also just being a kid in the Puente house?
TPJ: It was fantastic, it was a lot of musicians coming through. The great Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Mr. Carlos Santana. This all, when I was growing up, just fantastic. What a great, great feeling it was to be his son. Me and my sister Audrey, who's a meteorologist here in New York, we just really enjoyed being his kids. He was just a fantastic dad. He was not home as often as we would like him to be since he toured over two hundred shows a year. And he was just a workhorse.
He performed all the way to his passing at the age of seventy-seven. My mom, great mother, Margie Puente, still with us today, she was the epicenter of the Puente household and our family. Kept it all together.
Being his son was absolutely phenomenal. I'm grateful to him. He was just a force to be reckoned with and a great spirit. And a dear old dad too. He tried to spend as much time as he could with us, whether it be baseball games or going to the movies or something like that.
"Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Duke Ellington, Count Basie—Puente is right in there, and I'll even stick Michael Jackson in there, too."
KG: Now, I read online in one of your bios that your first foray into making a music career for yourself was in a heavy metal band, is that right?
TPJ: Absolutely. (laughs) I will not deny that.
KG: Tell me more about that.
TPJ: Everybody says that, "You were into Death..?" Actually, I won't say heavy metal, I would say death metal. It was really brutal.
KG: What was the band called?
TPJ: My band was called Monoxide.
KG: All right.
TPJ: I think we still have a Myspace page. (laughs) We would rehearse in our garage up in Rockland, twenty minutes north of Manhattan, and he would come downstairs and we would be playing (hums) really heavy stuff, and he would come down and say "Wait, wait, hold on a second," and tell the whole band to freeze. And say, "You're offbeat man!" (laughs) He would tell me that.
I was more into the Slayer, Metallica bag. But I really enjoyed it and it was something that made me keep up my chops, keep my chops up in playing drums. I liked speed metal and it made me, it broadened my horizon going from death metal and all that to Latin music. It was just something so far to the left, you know.
KG: Now, do you think you were drawn to heavy metal and death metal because your father was so not into that?
TPJ: Could be. You could be right. Now we're going into Psychology 101 here. Could be, I don't know. I didn't care for Latin music whatsoever. I just disregarded it and I guess when I started gravitating towards it, of course with the original crossover queen, Gloria Estefan, "Conga," all that. That's when it kind of felt it. But traveling with my father and seeing the rest of the planet, I thought, "There's nothing bigger than this." Traveling with him and experiencing his presence and his aura is really what pushed me to play more Latin music.
It was really something special. I became the quote unquote sub-drum roadie. I would have to set up his timbales everywhere we went. My father traveled with drums. Nowadays, you know, you get backline, this and that. But he wanted to travel with his own stuff. He's like "I'm taking my own stuff." And back then, of course, you could bring a bag and not get charged 35 bucks, just stick it in the overhead.
KG: I think if anyone is allowed to travel with his own drums, it's your father.
TPJ: Yeah, they would probably pay extra for that. But anyway, it was great. Setting up his drums, and driving him, and taking him everywhere. And he would perform all around New York. I was the Uber driver of that era. Once I got my license, my mother was like, "All right, I don't want him driving anymore. He's too old to be driving around and he's gonna get lost.."
KG: Was he driving himself around town?
TPJ: He was driving around, going to the Bronx, end up in there, end up in Brooklyn. All these clubs. And then he'd be hanging out with his friends afterwards. It was great. It was like, wow this icon is a street guy. My dad was very accessible. And my mom was really worried about that so she was like, "Go with your father and protect him and take care of him." So it was great. It was, you know. We were a team.
KG: So when did you start realizing that maybe you were wanting to pick up that mantle and begin to carry on his legacy? Was it when he passed or did you sort of know even before then that you would carrying that on?
TPJ: Being Puerto Rican, and being Hispanic, and being around musicians a lot. My father always told me, "Surround yourself with creative people thus you will be creative." So I did that a lot. And spending a lot of time with him and the musicians that were in his band. He had some fantastic musicians. Some of them are still with us. Some of them of course have passed on—the great Mario Rivera, saxophone player who played in my father's orchestra for over thirty-five years. John Dandy Rodriguez, I mean, I can go on and on with the accolades and the great musicians that he had around him. My father was such a perfectionist when it came to his music, that that gave me the discipline to do, and kind of follow his footsteps.
Having the crossover and the connection of just being musicians. The musicianship between my father and I. And him bringing me around to musicians all the time. It was just fantastic. I mean, it really, I gravitated towards what he was doing at that moment where I was playing metal, then I went to Latin music and started playing percussion a little bit more.
You gotta see my old videos, guys, they're on YouTube. You'll laugh a little bit. I have some long hair then I got signed to a record label. I asked my father to be in the music video. He said, "Who's gonna pay me?" (laughs) I gave him a kiss. He said, "your kisses are very expensive," (laughs) Then my mother said, "Go over there and do the video for your son." Thank you, mom. (laughs)
KG: You have all this different musical influences, you can go off in different directions. You did go in a lot of different directions for a while there now. At this point in your career, are you kind of strictly in your dad's Latin repertoire?
TPJ: It took me a long time to enjoy his music. But when I started playing the percussion and understanding the 3-2 and the 2-3 clave, the rhythms that my father does, I'll play them a little bit. (plays) It's a clave rhythm. It's two meaningless sticks that you click together, and that's our metronome for Latin music. And I never felt that, I was a 2-4 guy, 4-4 guy. We're talking about drum-talk now. But the 3-2 clave really, I fell for it. I fell in love with it. And it just made something in my heart, made me want to play the timbales a lot more. So I did it prior to his passing.
I think I got into professionally playing Latin music with timbales right before his passing. And I think it was, I don't know if it was divine intervention, or something. My father named me Tito Puente.
My father has an illustrious career prior to the 60s. The 1940s and '50s was really when he excelled here in New York. He was one of the top bandleaders including Tito Rodriguez and Machito. Those were the big three. And then of course his whole stint when he was sixteen and fifteen performing with the likes of Joe Cubello and Machito and he worked with so many other great orchestras. Dizzy Gillespie, those cats. I guess, you know, I wanted to keep his name alive.
And I think that's where it comes from, just father to son. I gravitated towards the 3-2 clave, he's the king of Latin music. I'm not the prince, but I think it's only important that the youth of today and the kids of today remember who Tito Puente was. The body of work and just what he went through, being a poor Puerto Rican kid. I mean, he was doing piano lessons for a quarter that my grandmother used to save for him so he could learn how to play piano. My dad served in World War II, served his country. That needs to be honored too, as well.
I mean, the impact of Americana music that he left. I don't call it Latin music. I think my father needs to be put in the same category as the Latin Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Duke Ellington, Count Basie—Puente is right in there, and I'll even stick Michael Jackson in there, too. My dad has such a legacy and a legend that he has left on this planet. I feel that it's my only duty as a son to keep his spirit and his name alive as best as I can.
I mean this is all Puente music, and stuff that he arranged, so I can go on and on, with just his music until the end of time, and give my son the possibility to continue his grandfather's legacy. As they say, talent skips a generation, so my son's gonna do great.
KG: Or daughter.
TPJ: Or daughter. That's true, too.
KG: So you think you have two budding musicians in the family? Have they shown any interest?
TPJ: I think my daughter, Miranda does. She's eleven now. The singing, she loves radio. She's got... you know, I'm not familiar... I feel like my father, like, "Who's that?" Like, "Oh, you know, Justin Bieber." "Oh, yeah." I mean, I'm just catching up with that guy, now she's like on to like Shawn Mendes and all these other guys, and Charlie Puth and I'm like, "Who are these guys?" They're just superstar celebrities and Grammy Award winners, and I'm like, "Wow, well, they're very talented." My daughter really is catching that bug. My son, who I named Tito Puente, Jr., Jr., the third, he's more of the comedian type.
TPJ: Yeah, but he knows who his grandfather is and he sees it, but he's a little wise-cracking guy, you know. He's funny. I think he's going to be a standup comic. With timbales.
KG: Do the kids appreciate how much of a legend their grandfather is? Do they have a sense of that yet?
TPJ: No. They never got the chance to meet him. However, they do see, like they just recently named a street in South Florida, Tito Puente Street, which is a great honor. Finally, after so many years since he passed, and of course, over here in New York. I take them to New York and they see the aura and the murals on the walls in Spanish Harlem, and how much people love him, and you know, how they talk about him on the radio and television. I even got him tattooed on me, so I keep him real close to my heart.
KG: Oh, you do! Look at that!
TPJ: Yeah, pretty cool.
KG: Oh, that's great.
TPJ: Yeah, thank you. They only know two songs, "Oye Como Va" and "Ran Kan Kan," the two biggest hits my father made but, my father had a catalog that was tenfold, it was huge, and great, great hit songs. However, when they do see him on television or something like that, "There's Grandpa!" You know, I think it hasn't registered yet. As they get older, I will teach them more about who their grandfather was and I'm glad that the school curriculums, most of them, including here in Juilliard, they have Tito Puente in their libraries. If you want to learn about Latin jazz and music, you gotta learn about Puente and his life and what he brought to the table musically.
KG: So one last question about legacy and carrying it on. There's a certain spirit that's brought to the whole thing. Can you talk a little bit about that? What is the, not just the specific works that you're trying to carry on, but the spirit of your dad and how he approached music and performing and the world.
TPJ: I feel that hopefully my legacy will be that of sharing my father's music to the new generation of millennials that are now growing up and never saw or discovered Tito Puente, or knew about him only through books or visual or YouTube or what have you. You know, the spirit of my father always will be within me.
They would say, "Mr. Puente, what do you think about crossover?" He'd say, "Crossover? Man, I'm on my way back!" (laughs) You know, he was doing this in the '50s. Then he had a reincarnation of his whole entire career through Santana in the 1970s. And then again in the 1990s when Mambo Kings came out. And all that fantastic music with Celia Cruz and Johnny Pacheco, and then again towards the end of his life. He passed away on top. It's timeless music. And that, I hope will resonate with the fans and resonate to the people that I'm presenting my father's music to.
But I try to keep most of the concerts in the spirit of Puente, which is about the Palladium, about the 1950s and '60s, when mambo was king, and when everybody, all creeds, colors, and races came together for one purpose, and that's to dance mambo music. And there was no racism in the four walls of the Palladium. There was no racism within the center of New York City at that time.
I think that's the nostalgic feeling when you come to see me, that's what you feel. I'm sure a lot of the people will feel that. I get old, young, everything. It's kind of the spirit of Puente, and you feel that ghost in me. And I share that with everybody. And I never take that for granted. And it's only my right. I think that's why he named me Tito Puente. Because he's like, "Hey, if I'm gone, you're the spirit that has to keep my music going." He didn't work that hard for nothing. And I would hate to see that a man who put so much energy and time into his craft, 50-year career and all his accolades, just be forgotten. It's so important that we keep him continuously, keep his name and his traditions alive.
KG: This is Lincoln Center is hosted by me, Kristy Geslain, with production help from Gillian Campbell, Valerie Martinez, Eileen Willis, Haghi Suka, and Ian Goldstein.
For full transcripts and episode extras, visit lincolncenter.org/podcast.
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